People working at a civil society organisation in Burma

Yanni Kronenberg

An innovative approach to organisational development is seeing international volunteers lend their expertise and support to help strengthen civil society organisations in Burma.

The Amatae project, managed by the British Council in Burma, has teamed up with Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) to provide support to local non-governmental organisations to be able to develop operationally and technically whilst continuing their work with local communities.

Funded by DFID and SIDA, Amatae was set up to provide grants and support to Burmese civil society organisations to help them to strengthen internal systems such as financial management and governance structures, staff training and the acquisition of key assets necessary for day-to-day organisational work.

Amatae responds to the limitations of short-term project funding, which is the most-common and readily accessible type of funding available to non-governmental organisations in Burma, but which leaves little room for the internal strengthening and development of these organisations.

This problem is particularly pertinent in Burma, a country experiencing such rapid political and economic change. In this environment, strengthening internal systems and processes can prove challenging alongside daily project work.

Additional to grant and short-term consultant support, Amatae recognised the need for a longer-term presence within participating organisations to provide guidance throughout the organisational development journey.

Teaming up with VSO has provided an ideal solution. The new approach sees experienced organisational development volunteers being placed directly within grant-receiving organisations in Burma to provide organisation development support.

Volunteers are fully embedded within the organisations, providing an ever-present and available human resource to support the implementation of development plans.

Providing such close support, the volunteers soon became part of the ‘organisational families’, as Emily Speers Mears, VSO programme manager in Burma, says: ‘Volunteers are not just working in the office from nine to five. They are engaged with and fully embedded in their host organisations, part of the team, travelling with them, going out for tea or beer together. It's been really exciting to see the volunteers get to know their partner organisations and to start making a difference to their ways of working during this incredible time in the country’s development.’

The volunteer approach is well-suited to Burma, where many civil society organisations have grown from small, close-knit groups and networks. One such organisation is Loka Ahlinn, which focuses on youth empowerment, the rule of law and community-led development. Loka Ahlinn's work is built on close links with individuals and groups across Burma, which have been developed over the past decade.

For Paul Knipe, volunteer with Loka Ahlinn, the experience has been a two-way learning process: ‘The benefit of this way of working with a local organisation is that you are essentially working as a local member of staff. Working at a grassroots level, I get to experience and participate in very different kinds of approaches to problems and issues. It’s challenging but very rewarding.’

Organisation development takes time, but it is crucial to get right if civil society is to remain a driving force in social, political and economic change in Burma. The British Council is working on the Amatae project until December 2015, and volunteers will continue to be an essential part of the project.

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Visit the Amatae project website.